The Timor occupation by the Japanese wasn’t really the first one in the World War II context. When the invading forces led by General Sadachishi Doi advanced on the night of February 19, the Western side of the island, by then under Portuguese jurisdiction, had already been occupied by the Allied Forces. Those included Dutch troops – mainly from West India – and Australian troops. As we will detail further ahead, the Allies felt great fear of a Japanese military action against Timor and therefore England, Australia and the Dutch government in Batavia insisted on Portugal’s acceptance of military help in the territory. It is an offer Salazar’s government could not accept since Japan, who in September 1940 had signed the Tripartite Convention with Germany and Italy, would immediately take it as a violation of the Portuguese official neutrality policy. After a process full of misunderstandings the Portuguese Government agreed to accept help just in case the Japanese really acted against Timor’s sovereignty and in the context of the Anglo-Portuguese Alliance, after a formal request from Portugal. Those conditions would later be reinforced through a telegram from the State Secretary for the Colonies addressed to the Governor Manuel Abreu Ferreira de Carvalho in the morning of the Australian and Dutch occupation. But let us go back a little in order to analyse some precedents.
Japan’s politics to expand South was a direct menace to the West Indies (the Dutch possessions of what is today’s Indonesia) and to Australia itself since Timor could be used as a trampoline. In 1937, the Nanyo Kohatsu Kabushiki Kaisha, a company devoted to the promotion of Japanese economical interests working from Micronesia and the Sociedade Agrícola Pátria e Trabalho in Timor, made official a partnership to explore some of the island’s most important agricultural resources (coffee, rubber or cacao among others). That same year the Australian Qantas Airline shows for the first time its interest on creating an airline connecting with Dilli. Those were the first steps to a commercial war between Japanese, Australian and Dutch interests leading to a competition not only for the natural resources but also for airline licences mostly without any commercial meaning. At that same time the conflict between China and Japan became stronger. The Japanese used the respect for the territory’s integrity of Portuguese Macau as a way of pressure to obtain easier agreements. Behind the screen of the commercial war, Australian and Japanese control each other, map the island, write reports they send to their own governments.
As already mentioned, should the Japanese troops take action, the Australians and the Dutch would feel that the Allies should seize Timor. A possible invasion of Portugal by the German would also be sufficient to take such a decision. The Australian Government was possibly convinced that a war scene with Japan at the Pacific would start with an attack to the West Indies or to the Portuguese Timor. However, it occurred in a much clamorous way with the attack to the American base in Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. Ten days later, at 8 a.m., the Governor of Timor welcomed in his residence the British Consul – an Australian named David Ross – and two lieutenants, one Dutch and the other Australian. They had come to insist one last time with the colony’s Governor to ask for help. Keeping with the instructions from the metropolitan government, Ferreira de Carvalho felt once more compelled to decline the offer and the request turned, in fact, into an ultimatum. The Australian and Dutch forces would invade Timor that same morning with or without a request for help. The Portuguese sovereignty would be officially kept. The governor has a meeting with officials of the highest rank detached in the colony in order to analyse the situation and a possible opposition to what was considered a military aggression. It was however unanimous not to offer resistance since it would be impossible and useless to the territory’s defence. The answer came down to a protest.
After intense diplomatic negotiations the Portuguese government reaches an agreement with England to replace the allied troops with a Portuguese force. That force would come from Mozambique and defend Timor if the Japanese attacked. The ship João Belo transporting the Portuguese Force sailed from Mozambique but never arrived in Timor on time to carry out the agreement.
On February 20, 1942, alleging self-defence, Japan invades the island of Timor. The invasion of the territory occurred through Dilli’s bay and the artillery batteries on shore showed to be insufficient. Colonel Van Straten, Commander of the allied troops, with some of the West Indies troops sets out to the East of the island. The only operational military resistance would be from the 2/2 Australian Independent Company, a group of commandos that immediately after the Allies’ landing on December 17, sat out to the mountains surrounding Dilli. The Japanese authorities, like the Allies did, report to the Portuguese authorities that if they maintained their neutrality, they would respect the Portuguese sovereignty and would set out of the territory immediately after achieving their self-defence purposes. It never occurred. The obvious sympathy of most of the Timorese and Portuguese populations regarding the Australian, together with de corresponding aversion to the Japanese soldiers and officers, was the main reason to prevent Japan from fulfilling its promise to get out of East Timor before the war was over.
Nowadays the polemics still persist over whether Japan would in fact invade East Timor if the Allies had not done so. It is understandable the Australian and Dutch fear that Japan would do it, but it is also true that the Portuguese neutrality in some way suited the Axe’s interests. A Japanese action against Timor would certainly place Portugal side by side with the allied nations with the implications it would carry, not only at the Pacific area, but also in Europe. Moreover, Japanese diplomatic documents quoted by Professor Ken’ichi Goto in his work Tensions of Empire (1) reveal a Japan divided between a wing pretending to maintain unbroken diplomatic relations with Portugal, to which belonged the Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo, and another one, composed mainly by the military, that defended the island’s invasion. Would the moderate wing win if the Australian and the Dutch had not occupied the territory? It may be a doubt of impossible enlightenment. To History remains what turned out to be a tragic event to the people of the Timor Island.
1 – GOTO, Ken’ichi Tensions of Empire – Japan and Southeast Asia in the Colonial & Postcolonial World, Ed. Ohio University Press, 2003
Transl. by Maria Manuel C. da Silva